Margret Grebowicz: “We are more alone than ever”
“I knew I would be frustrating, – Margret Grebowicz laughs as I am looking at my list of questions disappointedly. – I’m frequently asked about how porn influences our sex life but I don’t know about it”. Grebowicz is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Goucher College in Baltimore, USA, and author of Why Internet Porn Matters – the book about how internet changed our understanding of privacy and agency. KORYDOR talked with her about hilarious feminist porn of the 80s, new totalitarianism and cat videos.
How did you decide to study internet pornography?
I studied feminist theory and became interested in the conversation about sex work and pornographyin particular. That debate continues from 70s to today; but there’s not many people talking about the internet in that context. The only thing those who theorize about the internet write about pornography is that it makes search engines faster because porn is exactly what internet is all about. So I decided we need some sustained analysis of the specifics of internet pornography, some new tools to think about what it is. I came to it from classical critique of the information society, which really begins back in the 30s with the theory of mass society and media and then goes through notion of the society of the spectacle in the 60s and arrives at the idea of ecstasy of information in the 80s.
Long before internet actually came on the scene, there were
“predictions” of a future where information is endlessly,hysterically circulating. And if this is what is happening now, what does this mean for this experience of pornography? I don’t study the production of porn. For me the question concerns the experience of the user. It’s not even the questionwho are these people?, because“these people” are everybody. But how does it influence the world where we are increasingly dependent on social media and our devices?The classic internet pornographycritique claims that it kills your real sex life, but I believe the phenomenon is more complicated. I’m also not interested in sex addiction, which I think is a useful butvery limited concept.
So what happened to the user if that’s the question?
At least the same thing that happens to the user in every other aspect of internet life. What experience of the user of social media? Do we know? I think there are big shifts in what’s happening to privacy – not just the legal concept of it but the idea that I’m doing something privately. And specifically because of social media we are entering new forms of collectivity and therefore – new experiences of privacy. My book is a theoreticalwork, it raises questions rather than trying to answer them. I think what’s interesting is that something’s going on that we don’t really know how to think about. That means that there are probably forms of power acting on us; and we don’t even know what they are or how they act on us. One of the things that internet does is that it offers a kind of fantasy of agency. We imagine that we are free and making decisions. And what we don’t think about are all the different forms of constraint that it imposes on us. Privacy isn’t just about who knows something about you, it’ not just about your credit card or sexual practice. It’s also tied to the question of sexual freedom: what we call it and what we imagine it to be. Since the 18th century sex has been the place where power has lived in hidden ways.
So, there is a maximum fantasy of agency and privacy and freedom. Pornography is lot more privatelyavailable than ever before. One doesn’t have to go to the porn store and walk out with a brown paper baganymore. And at the same time the more what we do is connected to the internet, the less agential we actually are. Talking about the agency of the internet-user is somewhat like talking about the agency of factory worker. One of the things that we’re doing as internet users is unpaid labor. We’re making money for somebody. The question of privacy is also connected to the question of sexual freedom, which is related to a certain fantasy of the freedom of speech. And the internet porn problem becomes this kind of place where these intersections of fantasies of sexual freedom and freedom of speech come together in this very dramatic way. Meanwhile what I think is really happening is a new form of totalitarian control.
In her book Alone Together Sherry Turkle writes about this illusion of collectivity, arguing that we are more alone than ever, that new communications technologies have created a completely isolated kind of subject. So we buy more, we blog, we upload more and more stuff to Instagram, because there’s the endless, bottomless need which does not get satisfied by the available platforms. That is one of the reasons why I don’t like to talk about pornography in terms of sex addiction. It uses the classical figure of the addict, like a heroin addict. And most of us can’t relate to that. But what aboutthe compulsive nature of the internet use? It’s all addictive already.
What is sexual freedom nowadays, in those terms?
Foucault says that from the moment that we invented sexuality in the 18th century there was no such thing as sexual freedom. It maybe happened in the village in medieval times, when people went to the bushes and fucked in the darkness and nobody cared to talk about it. That was something like sexual freedom – in the sense that it was unintelligible unconstructed event. Now it doesn’t matter what we do, how kinky or gay we are, everything is co-optable by the system of norms. It’s an important question to ask: what about sex before the internet? We know for sure that sexual practices are different now. One very common explanation is: people watch internet porn and then they want to have that same sex or they want to look like those people. (And now,the media tell us, men can’t have erections anymore when they see pubic hair because they’re so used to looking at hairless waxed parts in internet porn). I think that is a very simple causal kind of model, much too simple.
A more interesting, up-to-date question would be something like: is the pleasure of being on Facebook actually greater than that of having dinner together? If, while we can have dinner together and we both will be on our phones, clearly, one thing is more compelling than the other. Then what about sexual practice? I teach courses on sex at my college and one thing that my 18- and 19-year-old students say is that they feel an enormous pressure to do certain things. For example, kink which is something I didn’t know anything about when I was 19. Now if you don’t want to engage in kink, your peers might think you’re sexually repressed. I don’t know how much of that has to do with how much kink people are seeing, in the sense of sheer volume of information. I think it has much more to do with this kind of pressure to be free and the fantasy of agency. The whole idea of sexual liberation starts with the idea of sexual repression. In the 18th century, Foucault says, this idea would begin: that we will liberate ourselves if we would talk about it. Internet pornography is the ultimate expression of this idea: that we just have to make more of it, consume more of it, and we will be more free.
We’re talking now about mainstream pornography, but what about, say, feminist porn?
The tradition of feminist pornography is old too. The films from the 80s are all romantic and heterosexual, like a fantasy of a man watching you through the window and talking to you about your panties. I showed some to my students and they thought it was hilarious. It’s nothardcore porn, in contrast to visual culture in 70s. It was supposed to be the thing that acts on women in a particular way.But in today’s culture, that begins from the assumption that porn is better than no porn, how much do we actually know about what women prefer? And which women?
Still, our sex education is still based on shame. Pornography provides a masculine and violent type of sexual culture, but sometimes it may be the only alternative way of learning anything about sex, for young people in particular. Does this have to do with liberation?
Exactly. But you are talking specificallyabout the contents of pornography. Because what you just did is the classic move. Yes, pornography objectifies women, yes, it legitimates violence. Actually, every terrible thing that you don’t want to be true about the world is shown in porn, and it’s made hot. I want to ask an additional question: how does the internet function as a constraint on our lives? Ontologically speaking, something different is happening that we don’t even have the language to think or talk about it. This book for me was about political power and how it lives inside the internet. I think that a society that is constantly using internet pornography (which is what we are) becomes governable in a particular way, on the level of imagination and desire. The question is how, exactly.
Who governs in this situation?
Do we know who governs in the new world order?We know we’re not free. And we know that whatever our constraints are it feels like we’re generating them ourselves. But we’re not – because we all have the same ones. This is the problem of late capitalism and this is one of the reasons why the internet is so powerful. It creates a completely self-controlling system in which nobody overtly governs. Except of course there are massive economic forces behind it. How does something like Facebook come to have such enormous power over our time, our most private moments? That is extraordinary. And it is unprecedented in human history.
What is the way out of it? Deleting Facebook profile, going “old school” in using any media?
Oh, I did that. It’s actually hard. Think about how much work you have to do to find alternative ways of living. You want to listen to cassette tapes? Good luck with finding them and a tape player. I’m not on Facebook, for example, and people keep asking me how I live that way.On one hand, yeah, I live like this, it can be done. But on the other hand, does it have enormouseffect on my career? Absolutely. Does it have such effects on my social life? Yes. There are entire things that I don’t know about.There are groups that think of it as a form of resistance. There is a movement in opting out of social media, technology, devices. And I think that’s going to be the future. It would be less about doing stuff and more about not doing it. Not participating in certain forms, so that the powers – that mysterious “they” – have to provide us with other options for communication.
Has internet ever been free?
I don’t think so. But that was the cybernetic fantasy – that we could create kind of system of information where the people would just express its true desires and thus govern itself. Pure democracy. Information projects have always been political projects. There’s nothing politically innocent about what’s happening.
Still, even if you refuse to participate in that, you’re not free, you’re just desperately avoiding something because you’re wary of being addicted.
It’s a matter of creating new stuff. Opting out first and secondly – creating new ways that these technologies may serve people. What’s interesting is that we sort of adopt some quasi-Eastern practices now. Everybody’s doing yoga. All businessmen meditate and go off to the silent retreats. (I do all these things, by the way, too, so I am also mockingmyself.)These kinds of practices are all about shutting off completely and going inwards. They are the opposite of the internet. Although everyone is instagraming their yoga poses.
We validate our relationships through Facebook, we createa reality of events on it. What does it mean for us to now suddenly have to process and discard things more quickly than ever before? The classic example: you break up with someone but you’re still friends on social media. Do you unfriend them? Do you stalk them? What about your old pictures together, should you erase those? And even if you do, where do they go? There’s the whole problem of what now counts as memory and how onecan erase the memory. What counts as significant? What happens with us when, for example, #Ferguson has the same amount of traffic as cute cat videos?
Or cats have more hits.
Right. Of course, the defenders of the internet would say that social media are very important in revolutionary frameworks, in any kind of uprising. When you have to quickly disseminate information that people don’t want you to disseminate, how do you do it? On Facebook.It’s definitely changed our lives. But if it’s for the better or worse, that depends on whom you ask. What I hear about more than anything is how compulsory the stuff is. When writers talk about how they have to blog in order to launch their careers. Nobody wants to blog! It eats your time. Noone has time to do anything anymore. The first classic critique of this was in Marx’s work, at least the most important one. Areold critical tools still useful for what is happening now? They are and they aren’t. So we have to come up with some new ones. But we’re too busy posting to Facebook and sending cat videos to each other. Cat videos give us a momentary relief because it’s pleasure. And we need pleasure because otherwise our lives are really hard – in the ways that we don’t even know how to describe. We are tired and despressed.
Can’t help asking: are cat videos as pleasurable as porn?
Social media gave us this very specific pleasure of liking and being liked. Is it any different from the general pleasure of the internet?
Actually it’s not just about liking but seeing how many likes. Liking is also related to the idea of going viral. There’s is this fantasy that you can get on the internet and become a sensation overnight. And I think that it has its own pleasure that has to do with how we imagine what the internet is – plugging into this gigantic thing, but personally,intimately, and as our true selves. In my book I compare this to the reality TV where people vote to for some singer or dancer and can see the numbers. So it’s not just that I vote, but that I can see myself voting and can imagine that I’m a part of this collective, even though I’m completely alone.
The question about the pleasure of likes is the right one. That’s exactly the thing we need to be looking at. There’s this entire infrastructure around porn consumption that is related to the experience of internet consumption in general. And pornographers know this. Some porn sites use the iconography of Facebook. Some look exactly like Wikipedia. Sociologists are trying to find out how this influences users. We don’t really know what people do as porn users, because the moment people know they’re self-reporting, it becomes a very specific kind of thing, subject to pre-existing narratives. So it’s never as simple as asking people to talk about sex or their pleasure. Perhaps we should be thinking about how the internet uses us, rather than the other way around. And if so, isn’t it also time to think about how internet porn uses us?